How My Heart Is In the Science
I strive to be kind and gentle to my shy rat . . .
I work to become aware of her emotional state, and to respect any “No” behavior she has . . .
I avoid purposefully or inadvertently triggering more or new fear in her.
I refrain from using force. Instead, I will help her want to be with me.
The Gentle Approach –
What To Bring To the Table
- Pet rats, as prey animals, expect to be eaten by predators. We humans are not automatically trustworthy. Until I prove to my rat that I can be trusted, I am a predator.
- I watch to see that the rat chooses to engage with me, or not. I know, you’re thinking, but what if she’s scared? We’ll get there, but first and foremost, I work to help the rat volunteer friendly behaviors. (Physical emergencies, such as needing to pull a rat out of a dangerous situation, or to get her to a vet, are exceptions.)
- If my rat is showing fear – ANY time I see fear – on-the-spot I work to reduce it, as part of a shift to neutral and then friendly.
- I focus on reading the rat’s body language, which is how fear and friendly manifest. If I see my rat acting afraid, I ask myself, “How do I know she’s afraid?”. The answer will be in her behaviors: She stayed inside her box, or she ran away from me, or she tightened up her muscles, or her eyes bulged. Name the behaviors – become adept at reading body language.
- Here’s one tool to help with body language: Watching a shy rat, I identify her fear level at any given moment
using a scale of 1-10. I name out loud the behaviors I see, and then watch, moment
I want my rat to want to try or do for me, not just comply “because I said so”.
I won’t insist on holding my rat if her body language is saying “No!”. It’s a problem if she starts off afraid but then seems to quiet down and accept my holding her.
Handling a fearful rat, or adding new fear to a rat by picking her up, and then holding her until she appears to quiet down, is an example of Flooding. In flooding, stress causes a kind of emotional collapse, or shut-down, in the animal. This shutdown can appear “peaceful”, “relaxed”, or “friendly”. But, a flooded rat has suffered emotionally.
Read more about this in Articles on Flooding, Learned Helplessness, and Shut-Down.
- If my rat doesn’t want to do something I want her to do, I back up and re-think what’s need to help her change her mind and want to engage with me. I get creative with techniques to win her over.
What To Avoid Doing, On Purpose Or Indavertently
- Misbehaving is not punished. “Punish” is meant broadly here: If the rat is going to experience what his human does as aversive, as in, he reacts negatively, actively avoids, flinches, or flees, then refrain from doing.
- Forcing a rat = not done. Force, in this sense, means to physically insist a rat do something she doesn’t want to do. (Again, emergency exceptions apply.)
- It goes without saying, do not trigger a rat to reactive aggressively.
- The ideas that a human should “dominate” or “be the Alpha” to a rat, are antiquated notions that do not apply to our relationship with our rats (or even, for the most part, rats’ relationships with each other). You can read more about these topics here:
Submission, Dominance, Appeasement, and
Establishing the Social Hierarchy: Normal Rat Behaviors, and
Rats and the Concept of “Alpha”.
(You can read more about this in articles on “Dominance”? Antiquated, Inaccurate, Invalid, Hurtful, Unnecessary, and Just Plain Wrong Wrong Wrong Uses of the Term.)
How do you get rats to do things you want them to do?
It can help to think about what you ask your rat to do in any situation, and to identify:
“Am I insisting my rat do this even though she doesn't seem to want to?”
“Is my rat scared while I do this?”
If you can identify with any of this, then this entire section on JoinRats offers tools to help you relate to the rat differently.
A wonderful quote from Susan Friedman: “Effectiveness is not enough when it comes to choosing and applying behavior-change interventions..... interventions are likely to be selected on the basis of convenience, familiarity, speed, or blind authority, and may inadvertently produce the detrimental side effects of punishment and learned helplessness in our animals. The commitment to using the most positive, least intrusive, effective interventions allows us to think before we act, so that we make choices about the means by which we accomplish our behavior goals. In this way, we can be both effective and humane. This is the minimum standard of care we should stretch to meet on behalf of the welfare of companion animals and caregivers alike.” Susan Friedman, PhD, Department of Psychology, Utah State University, What’s Wrong With This Picture? Effectiveness Is Not Enough.
How My Heart Is In the Science
VIDEO: Counter-conditioning example: While the rats in this video are not afraid, IF one of them was afraid, you see here that I lift one up and move him over. My quick touch and handling, potentially scary, paired with yummy baby food, can change the handling to more neutral. Lots of repetitions over time are needed.